A war-weary America forces both parties to reconsider their plan of attack
HAVING evaded Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it’s unsurprising that Barack Obama is reminding the public that it was his decision that led to the daring raid which killed Osama bin Laden. With elections in November, that’s all very well. But is this a case of kill overkill?
The main controversy surrounds a video released by the Obama campaign, exactly a year after bin Laden’s assassination. The short video documents the leadership credentials that led the president to make “the” decision. It also cites a quote from Mitt Romney, in 2007, where he questions “moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars, just trying to catch one person.” But Obama went too far. When Americans are looking for presidential temperance, Obama turned one of the few events that unified the nation into a personal victory lap. It was a grave mistake.
Getting bin Laden signalled to Americans that their government could still do things. The aftermath showed politicians can’t resist but to make political capital out of them. As the guy who got bin Laden, the Obama campaign released the video to mitigate against Republican attacks accusing the president of being soft on defence. Instead he has appeared self-congratulatory and narcissistic – what the Republicans wanted. However, although national security credentials will remain a consideration, the public is hostile to further overseas engagements. It’s a trap Republicans risk walking into.
The president is on pretty solid ground on national security issues, enjoying a nine point lead among independent voters. Although Romney has yet to fully map out a doctrine of his own, Obama has created a fine balance of protecting US interests while bringing troops home. Officially, combat operations in Iraq are over and there will be a significant drawdown in Afghanistan around the time of the election. But he’s no dove. In 2010, Obama sent 33,000 “surge” troops to Afghanistan. He controversially sanctioned military action in Libya without consulting Congress. David Rhode recently highlighted that “the Obama administration has carried out at least 239 covert drone strikes, more than five times the 44 approved under George W. Bush.” Also, to the chagrin of Obama’s base, Guantanamo Bay is still open. Even without the props of TV commercials, he’s a war president.
Romney can be more aggressive than the president, but it’s questionable whether the war-weary American public can stand expending blood and treasure for another four years. Support for the war in Afghanistan is at an all time low – especially in crucial swing states. But as this week has shown Obama is extremely vulnerable to accusations that he is flagrantly using the military as a political prop. People will resent that more than admire “the” decision Obama made year ago. But if the Republicans are seeking to out-hawk the president they’ll have a considerable political challenge on their hands.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt